Graphic Lit: The undergrounds return
The 1960s, as everyone knows, was a seminal time, though you may not be aware of just how seminal it was in the magic land of comic books.
Just as Jimi Hendrix and the Beatles redefined people’s ideas about pop music, so, too, did artists such as Robert Crumb and titles such as “Zap Comix” redefine the notion of what was permissible in a 32-page funny book.
The “underground comix” movement, as it has been since dubbed, brought sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll to the comic pamphlet. Suddenly, artists started giving their id free rein and produced some confrontational, psychedelic and occasionally brilliant work. You can draw a straight line from those early, trippy books to the ambitious graphic novels we see on the shelves today.
While the ’60s and the underground movement may be long gone, the artists haven’t rested on their laurels. Many are still active and producing work equal to or better than their earlier material. Here’s a look at four recent books that celebrate the work of these baby boomers:
by Kim Deitch
Fantagraphics, 176 pages, $18.95.
Kim Deitch has always been one of the most interesting and unique artists of the underground generation, and “Shadowland” cements that reputation.
The book is a collection of interrelated stories Deitch did during the late 1980s and early ’90s, and focuses on the Ledicker family, owners of a traveling carnival, and their adventures through the early half of the 20th century.
Space aliens, rampaging elephants, lost pygmy tribes, diving pigs, conspiracy theories and silent film stars all blend in Deitch’s tales, as a variety of oddball characters weave in and out of the plot and each other’s lives.
It’s a mindbending, intense journey at times, but one well worth taking, as “Shadowland” is one of Deitch’s best works and one of the finest books of the past year.
“The Art of S. Clay Wilson”
Ten Speed Press, 154 pages, $35.
Of all the underground cartoonists, Wilson was always the most out-there, the one willing to go to places that others would wisely fear to tread. His panels are always full of huge crowds of people — usually pirates or biker gangs — committing intense orgies of sex and/or violence.
This slim collection of art unfortunately doesn’t include very many of Wilson’s comics. It’s mostly focused on his paintings, drawings and sketches, many of them recent. While it’s a nice supplemental book for fans who already own the artist’s more significant work (i.e. the comics), I can’t recommend it as an introductory volume. Those with the strength of stomach and heart to seek out his work should look elsewhere.
“The New Adventures of Jesus” by Frank Stack
144 pages, $19.95.
Stack’s “Jesus” comics actually predate Crumb’s “Zap” by a good few years, though the latter is more widely known. This book collects all of the “Jesus” stories, which Stack continued up to and including today.
The book begins as an insolent take on the New Testament, but Stack quickly uses the Messiah as a counterpoint to the madness of modern life. A holy Voltaire of sorts, Jesus goes up against Hollywood, academia, the legal system and even the Reagan administration.
Stack’s satire gets sharper and more savage as the years progress, showing up most folks’ selfishness and narcissism. By the book’s end, when Jesus asks his Dad if he can get a head start on the Last Judgment, you think that’s not such a bad idea.
“You Call This Art? A Greg Irons Retrospective”
by Patrick Rosenkranz
Fantagraphics, 296 pages, $29.95.
Despite his artistic prowess, Greg Irons never achieved the recognition of many of his peers, most likely because of his death in 1984.
Hopefully, Rosenkranz’s book will raise the artist’s stature somewhat, as it includes a good deal of Irons’ stories, drawings, commercial work and a well-written account of the artist’s life. Irons’ work could be violent and gory, but also exquisitely detailed and rendered with a true craftsman’s care. He’s not someone who deserves to fade into obscurity.
Copyright The Patriot-News, 2006